Over the past five decades, musician John McEuen has played literally all over the world with his popular country-rock outfit, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and as a solo act. He’s worked with famous performers ranging from Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to Tom Petty, Phish, Dolly Parton and Steve Martin.
He’s played concerts in literally thousands of venues – big sports arenas, Las Vegas casinos, huge outdoor festivals and saloons of every size and description, from delightful to dumpy.
Yet one of his absolute favorite places to play is Buffalo’s own Sportsmen’s Tavern in Black Rock.
McEuen still recalls his first gig in the Sportsmen’s, about seven years ago. He remembers driving up to the place – which looks like a small, nondescript gin mill from the outside – and wondering “what did my agent get me into this time?”
“Then, I walked into the place, met the people there, played my show for a great audience, people who really appreciated the music,” McEuen said. “By the time I got out of there, I couldn’t wait for my agent to book me there again. It’s one of the really special places for music in this whole country. There are only a few places like the Sportsmen.”
McEuen has returned four times since.
Praise like that is music to the ears of Dwane Hall, the country singer who opened the Sportsmen’s in 1985 and still runs it 30 years later with his wife, Denise; his sons Jason, Jeffrey and James; and several other close family friends.
“We’ve tried to make this a special place for the musicians, a place they really want to return to,” said Hall, 60, sitting in the recording studio his family built next to the Sportsmen’s. “We treat them well. We make them feel welcome. They know the people who come to hear music at the Sportsmen’s are really there for the music.”
Hall, who lives in Black Rock within walking distance of the tavern, is very proud of the reputation the Sportsmen’s has earned with local musicians and with nationally known performers including McEuen, Rodney Crowell, Maria Muldaur, Peter Asher (who returns April 11), Albert Lee, the Alvin Brothers, Steve Forbert and Asleep at the Wheel. He’s proud of the fact that the club features live music almost every night of the year, and quite often two different acts on the same day. The music is a diverse slate including folk, country, Americana, classic rock, indie and modern rock.
“The musicians tell me they like the intimacy of the place,” Hall said. “We can’t have Paul McCartney at the Sportsmen’s, but we can get Denny Laine, and he was Paul’s guitar player for 12 years.”
Creating a hub
But Hall has bigger ambitions for the Sportsmen’s, and for the Buffalo music scene. Much bigger.
Hall and some other local music lovers started a not-for-profit foundation in September 2013, as the first step in an effort to turn Buffalo into the hub of “Americana music” in the Northeast. They want Buffalo to become the Northeast equivalent of Austin, the Texas city that is known nationwide for its great music venues, and especially, for its groundbreaking live music TV show, “Austin City Limits.”
“Our goal is to make Buffalo a national presence as a music city, a place where people travel to because they know there’s going to be great music there,” Hall said. “Can we do it? In my heart, I know we can do it. We can make Buffalo a big music town.”
His immediate goal is to start a television show – much like “Austin City Limits” – featuring live performances in the Sportsmen’s. Hall has spent tens of thousands of dollars on video and lighting equipment, and has recorded and archived hundreds of hours of shows from his club. He’s also spent hundreds of thousands more building the recording studio – which is used by local bands and visiting musicians – and expanding and upgrading the Sportsmen’s, which he proudly calls a “honky-tonk.”
The club now has room for about 230 patrons in the winter, but that grows to 350 in the summer when an outdoor patio is open.
“We want to model our television show after ‘Austin City Limits,’ and call it ‘Live at the Rock,’ ” Hall said. “The TV show would be the wheel that drives the whole thing.”
Hall and other Buffalo music lovers started the Sportsmen’s Americana Music Foundation to “foster, promote and expand community appreciation for Americana music from Buffalo and Western New York.” In addition to producing a TV show, the group eventually hopes to sponsor local music festivals, songwriting and guitar clinics and music camps for kids. The group also hopes to raise money to buy musical instruments and lessons for local kids who cannot afford them.
Basic memberships in the foundation cost a tax-deductible $35 a year, $500 a year for corporate memberships. Details on the foundation and how to join can be found at sportsmenstavern.net.
“This isn’t just about promoting music at the Sportsmen’s. It’s about promoting music in Buffalo, including other clubs, and the growth of music in Buffalo,” Hall said. “Buffalo is on fire right now. Great things are happening all over the city. People are excited, and we want to be a big part of that.”
Just what is Americana music? To Hall and other aficionados, it’s country, rock, bluegrass, jazz, blues, folk, rockabilly, and sometimes, a combination of all those genres.
Hall has all kinds of enthusiasm, but his big plans hit one stumbling block last year. He said he has been unable to interest the local public television station, WNED, to get involved with “Live at the Rock.” Hall said he met with Donald K. Boswell, president and chief executive officer of the station, and Boswell told him WNED is not interested. “I guess he doesn’t think we can do it,” Hall said.
WNED is not interested in the show, Boswell confirmed, but he said it is not because he doesn’t believe Hall can do it.
“It wasn’t meant as a slight against him or the club,” Boswell told Gusto. “We would like to do a live music show someday, maybe a blues show from Buffalo. We would only be interested in doing a show like that from our own studio in our own building. We have a big, beautiful studio, and we’d want to do the show from there. It makes no sense for us to spend all the money to rent the equipment it would take to do something outside the studio.”
Hall has not given up. He said he has recently spoken with executives from two different cable networks and both networks are interested in at least exploring the idea. He said he is bound and determined to make the music show happen.
Friends in the Buffalo music community – such as rock musician Willie Schoellkopf, a member of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame – would never bet against Hall. He said Hall and his friend Ken Biringer, who books acts at the club, are known for keeping ticket prices reasonable, while at the same time paying their acts fairly.
“I am not sure how many Sportsmen’s patrons are aware that Dwane is a master-class musician, as well as a sound engineer, producer and songwriter,” said Schoellkopf, who has known Hall since the 1970s. “Dwane’s vision for the Sportsmen’s has been inspirational.”
Hall said he has lived and breathed music since he was a little boy.
“My dad played fiddle and accordion in a band. I started playing lap steel guitar when I was 9. My dad, my five brothers and my sister would all play in jam sessions after dinner, in the dining room of our home on Military Road,” Hall recalled. “All the neighbors, including the little kids, would come over and listen.”
After graduating from Riverside High School and serving three years in the Marines, Hall worked all kinds of jobs – as a roofer, as an oil company worker, as an aide at animal hospitals, and as a cleaner of coke ovens in steel plants. “I think I worked all the jobs that no one else wanted to do,” he said.
But he always kept his hands in music. He started the Stone Country Band in the 1970s. The band had talent and tried to make it big in Nashville, but didn’t make the right connections. Hall still sings with the band in the Sportsmen’s on Mondays.
“When we’re playing and the music is really good, I get carried away with it. You’ll sometimes see me wipe a tear away from my eye,” he said. “When I promote a really good show, I feel the same way. It’s not about the money with me. It’s about the music.”
The Sportsmen’s Tavern (426 Amherst St.) has music daily including lunchtime shows at noon Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Here are some Sportsmen’s concerts. For a full listing, visit sportsmenstavern.net.
Workingman’s Dead, 9:30 p.m. March 20
Blackrock Zydeco, 8 p.m. March 22
David Kane’s Them Jazzbeards, 9:30 p.m. March 27
Maybe I’m Amazed, a tribute to Paul McCartney with Scott Celani Band, Outlyers, Stoneflower and the Corrections, 9:15 p.m. March 29
David Mayfield Parade, 7:30 pm, April 2
Blackrock Zydeco, 7 p.m. April 8
Chris Beard, 9:30 p.m. April 10
Peter Asher, 9 p.m. April 11
Aztec Two Step, 4 p.m. April 12
Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay, 7 p.m. April 15
Girls, Guns & Glory plus Leroy Townes & The Lonestars, 7:30 p.m. April 17
Professor Louie & The Crowmatix w/ The Hitmen Horns performing the music of The Band, 4 p.m. April 19
Whiskey Shivers, 7 p.m. April 22
Tom Hambridge, 7:30 p.m. April 23
The Sheila Divine, 8:30 p.m. April 24-25
Bruce Katz Band, 4 p.m. April 26